Countermapping the Past: Reenvisioning Ancient Maya Spaces at Say Kah, Belize

Sarah E. Jackson* (Corresponding Author), Joshua Wright, Linda A. Brown

*Corresponding author for this work

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This paper explores possibilities for recognizing and analytically using culturally-specific understandings of artefacts and spaces at an ancient Maya archaeological site. In the case study that we present, we use Classic Maya material categories–derived from hieroglyphic texts–to re-envision our representations of artefactual distributions and accompanying interpretations. We take inspiration from countermapping as an approach that recognizes the positionality of spatial representations and makes space for multiple/alternative spatial perspectives. We present spatial analyses based on our work at the Classic Maya archaeological site of Say Kah, Belize, juxtaposing modern modes of visualizing the results of multiple seasons of excavations with visualizations that instead draw upon reconstructed elements of ancient inhabitants’ perspectives on the site, its spaces, and usages (based on information drawn from Classic Maya textual ‘property qualifiers’). We argue that even incomplete information, such as that available for archaeological contexts, allows us to reimagine past spatial perspectives and experiences. Furthermore, doing so represents a move towards inclusion that changes our understanding of sites in terms of ancient experience and usage. The outcome is a shifted perspective on the spaces of the site that decentres the modern, archaeological vision, accompanied by a more reflexive awareness of the processes we use to construct our interpretations. We end with larger reflections useful for archaeologists curious about translating these ideas to other cultural settings.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)109-136
Number of pages28
JournalNorwegian Archaeological Review
Issue number2
Early online date26 Nov 2019
Publication statusPublished - 2019

Bibliographical note

The fieldwork that contributed to this study was supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation (Grant 9001), the National Geographic Society (Grants W377-14 and HJ-038R-17), the American Philosophical Society (Franklin Research Grant), the Curtiss T. and Mary G. Brennan Foundation, the Taft Research Center (University of Cincinnati), and the College of Arts and Sciences (University of Cincinnati), which the authors gratefully acknowledge. Our fieldwork was made possible by Dr. Fred Valdez, the Programme for Belize Archaeological Project (PfBAP), and the Belize Institute of Archaeology. Key project staff members who contributed to this work include: Lindsay Argo, Luke Aspland, Meredith Coats, Holly Dorning, Chris Motz, Beau Murphy, Anna Novotny, Colleen O’Brien, and Caleigh Richissin. Valuable feedback on the article came from Jeff Millar, Leila Rodriguez, and Stephanie Sadre-Orafai; we also thank Andrew Newman for helpful perspectives on countermapping. Finally, we are grateful for the detailed and thought-provoking comments of two anonymous reviewers, which helped clarify our thinking and strengthen our manuscript.


  • cognitive
  • classification
  • symbols
  • anthropology
  • ideaology


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